BELLEAIR BEACH — Candidates for three council seats and the mayor’s chair met in a lively forum held at City Hall on Jan. 28. The session was hosted by Marti Folwell, representing the League of Women Voters.
The race includes two candidates for mayor and five people seeking to fill three council member seats. No matter who wins, the City Council will have an almost completely new look. If she wins re-election, Mayor Leslie Notaro would be the only council member with more than a year’s service.
Notaro is opposed by Joseph Manzo. Running for council are Robyn Ache, Dave Gattis, Todd Harper, Steve Marsh and Rita Swope. Marsh was out of the country and did not participate in the candidates’ forum. Harper was appointed to his council seat in October and is the only candidate with council experience.
The candidates were asked to name the top five items they would like to address if elected.
From the beginning, Manzo and Notaro had widely different views and approaches as to how the city has been and should be run.
Manzo said council has had issues “on the drawing board” for a number of years that have not been completed. He also said the citizens are not being heard and their issues not being responded to.
There is a need for strategic planning and capital planning, and for fiscal responsibility, Manzo said. Also, quality of life issues such as safety and traffic on Gulf Boulevard are not being addressed. More government transparency is needed, he said.
Notaro said she is proud of the accomplishments during her three years as mayor and on council for 10 years.
“We run a tight ship,” Notaro said, with balanced budgets and projects timed out so they can be done within budget. The city has been fiscally responsible and has one of the county’s lowest millage rates, she said.
Robyn Ache said communication with residents, making sure their voices are heard, is a top priority. Streets need to be made safer, she said, and infrastructure issues such as flooding and proper drainage also need to be addressed.
Dave Gattis said the undergrounding project in the Bellevue Estates neighborhood is “first and foremost.”
“I want to verify that it is running smoothly,” he said, not just for aesthetics, but also for safety issues.
Right now, “if we have a storm, downed wires will be everywhere,” he said.
Gattis said he also wants to make sure the drainage projects are being done smoothly. Two-way communication with the residents is also important, he said.
Todd Harper said Belleair Beach is a unique community. It is totally residential, with no commercial businesses, and “that presents a unique challenge.” A strategic plan and vision are needed of where the city wants to go, along with priorities on the projects and where the money is spent, Harper said.
Disaster planning for hurricanes is also important, along with safety and security issues, he said.
Rita Swope’s top issue is open communication with the residents, and getting them actively involved in the city. Swope said she wants to move forward with the projects in place, especially related to drainage and storm preparedness.
Next, the candidates gave their qualifications to serve on council.
Manzo said he has four qualities “no one else has.”
As a licensed CPA, “I know financials backwards and forwards,” he said.
He has executive management experience and “I know capital projects, I know how to run them and I know how to build them.”
He has managed large departments of people. Manzo said he is also a licensed attorney specializing in contract law and constitution law.
Notaro said she is also an attorney. She cited her experience with the city. Belleair Beach does not have a “strong mayor” form of government, she said, adding it’s a council-manager arrangement with the council directing the staff to run the city.
She mentioned getting the beach renourishments done as a notable accomplishment.
“We have a wonderful staff, and we’ve maintained great fiscal responsibility,” Notaro said.
Harper said council service “comes down to vision, and opportunity to execute on that vision.” His engineering background, he said, enables him to look at the big picture and break it down into smaller parts.
He said, “I look at it as attention to detail, the ability to have the vision and manage the vision and move things forward.”
Ache is a general surgeon and said she is used to stressful situations. She has also served on leadership committees as a medical professional. She described herself as calm and level-headed, and said “I would be good on council if things were a little heated to keep everything on track.”
Ache also said she has great compassion for her community, and, as a mother of young children, “I want this to be a family friendly community for people of all ages.”
Gattis cited his technical background, managing a corporate engineering department, and “my many years of managing projects.”
If elected, Gattis said he will dedicate his time and energies to the city.
“I’m in love with Belleair Beach and I love people,” Gattis said, “and am very committed to give my time to the city.”
Swope said she has extensive experience in leading multiple departments for an international company and “an extensive background in negotiations and reaching consensus from all parties involved.”
“I also have a proven ability to bring together our neighbors in order to make our community much better than it is, and to look forward to the future to continue to make it better,” she said.
Asked for their position on taxes, all expressed the importance of keeping the tax rate as low as possible.
Notaro said that during her 10 years on council, the city has raised the millage rate only once. She added “It is one of the lowest rates around here, and I think it contributes to the rise in property values here.”
Notaro said “we need to be fiscally responsible and keep our taxes as low and reasonable as possible, and that’s what I would continue to do.”
Manzo questioned Notaro’s tax comments, saying “property values went up every single year for the last five years,” and that means “taxes are going up.”
He said “the key to this is fiscal responsibility.”
Manzo said he would establish an ad hoc committee to go through every line item in the budget “to try and find any areas of potential savings.”
Swope said she is “not fond of taxes,” but as a community with no businesses, Belleair Beach needs to “make sure we have enough money to sustain our quality of life.”
Ache also spoke of being fiscally responsible, and “if that means that a time or two we have to slightly raise taxes in order to get things done for the betterment of our community, I think that would be wise. But hopefully that would be a last-ditch effort.”
“Taxes are going up,” Gattis said. “We need to make sure we are getting something for our money, and do a better job of using that money appropriately.”
Harper said the city needs a strategic plan.
“If you know where the city wants to go and the citizens agree to it, then the strategic plan will be the basis of the budget and be the basis of how we generate the revenue,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of looking at other sources of income besides taxes, such as grants.
Drainage and flood control
Candidates were asked how the city should handle drainage problems this year before the next major storm.
Notaro said money has been set aside to address drainage and flooding problems in the city “and we’re finishing them in sequence.” She said problems are occurring primarily at high tide, and the city is putting in valves that keep water from flowing back into the system at high tide.
Manzo challenged Notaro’s response, saying there is no strategic plan to address drainage control.
He said “these streets have been flooding for 10 years.”
He described problems that are “worse than flooding; we’ve got sewage flowing down our street.”
He added, “All this flooding is unacceptable. We need to get a strategic plan. We need to address these issues.”
Gattis said he would like to look at flood prone locations and see what’s needed to fix the problems. He said in addition to the backflow valves, “I would also like to look into improving the streets’ guttering.”
The city manager and council have a plan to control flooding, and it’s moving forward. First and Second streets are already fixed and they look nice, she said.
“We need to work together on priorities,” she said.
Ache said the flooding issues need a long term, not a Band-Aid fix.
“By long term, I mean several decades,” she said.
Harper said the city has a plan for drainage and flood control, but it is a multi-million-dollar plan. The challenge is to prioritize, he said, and fix the biggest problems first.
“We need to make sure we have a short-term plan, and a longer-term vision,” Harper said.
‘How do you feel about Belleair Beach?’
Asked, “How do you feel about Belleair Beach?” the candidates all said they love the city and enjoyed living there. The reasons they gave were varied, but most were positive.
Ache said she liked the city’s “safe, welcoming feel.” Gattis said Belleair Beach is a friendly city where people know their neighbors. He said he wants to join council “to give back” to the community.
“The key word is community,” said Harper. He said the city needs to be responsive to its citizens, but the citizens also need to be involved. Harper said Belleair Beach “is a great city, and it’s doing well.”
Swope described Belleair Beach as a friendly community, where she has made good friends, and “met some amazing people.”
Manzo said he also likes Belleair Beach, but said “we can do better.” “We need to focus on responsiveness, communication with the residents, strategic planning and infrastructure repair,” he said.
“We cannot be a premier community when we have water and sewage running down our street, and projects that are not done.”
Manzo said the city needs to recognize and solve its problems.
Notaro had a different outlook. She said Belleair Beach is “a very special, unique community,” and “I want to keep it that way.”
She said the city’s drainage problems are scheduled to be fixed, “but we will take them in order.”
The entire forum will be available for viewing on the city’s website, www.cityofbelleairbeach.com.